Schooling: An Evolving Variety

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Schooling: An Evolving Variety


Characteristics. From the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, schooling played an increasingly important part in the education of young Americans. More colleges were founded, of course, but the greatest proliferation of schooling came below the college level. In both New France and the Spanish borderlands the Catholic Church continued to control formal schooling, generally making sure that academic standards and religious orthodoxy were maintained. In New Netherland as well as the British colonies schooling was closely allied with the various Protestant denominations throughout the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century schooling proliferated and became more accessible and diverse in subject offerings than in either New France or the Spanish borderlands. Throughout the Americas, though, education reflected the class system, and except in Canada, boys were much more likely than girls to have schooling. Young men from the lower classes might attend some elementary school and go into apprenticeship training. On the other hand, sons of the gentry were expected to study Latin grammar and the Greek and Roman classics. Latin grammar schools were scarce in the Spanish borderlands, where sons of wealthy families had private tutors or attended school in the more settled provinces of New Spain. Most of the schoolmasters in New France and the Spanish borderlands were priests, but in New Netherland and British North America teachers were usually laymen, though preachers sometimes instructed a few boys in Latin grammar. Teachers were valued, and Latin masters often made a better than middling living. However, masters of primary schools teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic were usually poorly paid. Indeed, most schoolmasters plied several vocations to make ends meet or until they could establish themselves in another more lucrative vocation.

New Netherland. In 1638, at the behest of Domine Everardus Bogardus, the Dutch Reformed pastor at New Amsterdam, the West India Company employed a schoolmaster, Adam Roelantsen, whose credentials were certified by the Classis of Amsterdam, the ecclesiastical body having jurisdiction over New Netherland. Roelantsens school was for young children, both girls and boys, and emphasized the Heidelberg Catechism and reading and writing. Roelantsen turned out to be a disappointing teacher. However, from 1638 on the company and the Reformed clergy generally cooperated in securing qualified teachers as immigration brought more families to the Dutch colony. In order to best help the church of God here, and to resist a bad world, wrote Domine Johannes Backerus in 1648, I think we must begin with the children, for many of the older people are so far depraved they are now ashamed to learn anything good. Bogardus found a ready ally in Director General Peter Stuyvesant, who arrived in 1647 and immediately began recruiting both clergymen and schoolmasters for the colony. More often than not the village schoolmaster was associated with the local Reformed congregation as sexton and clerk, much as was the case in the Dutch republic. By 1664, when the English conquered New Netherland,

of the eleven Dutch chartered towns (including New Amsterdam), all but two are known to have had schoolmasters usually associated with the Dutch reformed congregations. There was also a schoolmaster at New Amstel on the Delaware River, where the city of New Amsterdam maintained a settlement that was under Stuyvesants jurisdiction as well. In addition Stuyvesant licensed several individuals who conducted private schools unattached to the local congregations. In 1659 the directors of the West India Company sent Alexander Carolus Curtius, a professor from Lithuania, to open a Latin school in New Amsterdam. After a dispute over his salary, Curtius was replaced by Aegidius Lucyck, formerly pastor at New Amstel and tutor to Stuyvesants children, whose school attracted students from Virginia and continued until 1664.

New France. Most children in New France got little formal education beyond the year of catechetical instruction that most children received as preparation for their first communion, which usually occurred at age ten. Some of the priests also conducted primary schools for both girls and boys in which they taught reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as the catechism. Among the ordinary farmers and fur traders, known as the habitants, young women were more apt to get additional schooling than young men, whose labors were much in demand for farmwork, apprenticeships in the trades, or the fur trade. Especially active in establishing schools for girls were the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, which founded ten such schools by 1707, especially in the rural parishes. More than half the parishes had at least one girls schools by 1763. Some apprenticeship agreements required masters to teach their charges to read and write. Boys of the upper classes might attend the Jesuits college at Quebec, founded in 1635, or the Sulpicians Latin school at Montreal, where they were grounded in the Roman and Greek classics. Bishop François Laval de Montigny began a seminar in 1659 mainly for the education of priests, but young men not especially interested in the priesthood were allowed to attend. Lavals seminary, however, was rigorous, and of 843 who entered only 188 stayed and went into the priesthood. The Jesuits at Quebec also established a school of hydrography for preparing young men as pilots, navigators, and cartographers. Young ladies from the upper classes were likely to attend the various schools founded by the Ursuline sisterhood in Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and Montreal. There they were taught reading, writing, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and botany and rigorously instructed in Latin before being taught French grammar and literature. Some of them would later teach their own children and those of their neighbors, though never establishing schools as such. Besides the priests and nuns, educated young men from France were sometimes allowed to teach, but only under the supervision of the Catholic clergy. The only permanent school at Louisbourg was for girls, founded by the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame in 1727. Schooling was generally neglected in Louisiana, which did not even have a Catholic seminary. However, a Capuchin monk, Father Cecil, did operate a school in the territory from 1725 to 1731. Young men from wealthy families generally went to France for their classical education. In 1727 the Ursuline sisters established a hospital and boarding school for girls in New Orleans. It relocated in 1734 to a building on Chartres Street that still stands.

Spanish Borderlands. The Catholic clergy supervised schooling in present-day New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Florida among both the settlers and the Indians. Schools were scarce outside the Indian missions until near the end of the eighteenth century. Parents were required by law to provide religious training to their children and servants, and it was common among the upper classes to have live-in tutors for their children. During the conquest of New Spain, children of the Indian elite were educated in the missions and served as a bridge between the Spanish rulers and other Indians. This system, known as the Calmecac, was also followed in the borderlands. The young Indians so educated were called doctrineros, and they were utilized in the missions as teachers. Around 1700 Fray Alvarez established a school for reading and writing in Santa Fe. In New Mexico private teachers were often contracted by the mission communities to conduct primary schooling for not only the Indians but also mestizos, mulattoes, Africans, and Spaniards living outside the pueblos. Private tutoring aside, education above the primary level did not exist in the borderlands. However, Durango, in northern Mexico, was one of the places where children of the borderland elite might go for Latin schooling and seminar training.

British North America. The rich variety of schooling that emerged in English America reflected not only its large and growing population but also the economic diversity of the region and the growing importance of literacy in the lives of its people. From the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries the nature of schooling, and education generally, changed as Anglo-American colonial society expanded and matured. Regional differences in the way schools were founded and maintained remained pronounced, but the trend was everywhere the same: schooling generally became much more accessible. While Latin schools remained the primary institution of secondary education, the English school emerged with a curriculum designed to serve the economic ambitions of the growing British American middle classes. While elementary schooling in reading, writing, arithmetic, and the catechism continued to be sponsored in large part by the various religious denominations, the English schools were usually run by private entrepreneurs who offered not only English grammar but also mathematics, modern languages, and practical subjects related to commerce, navigation, and surveying. Especially located in the larger colonial cities and towns, the English schools manifested larger educational trends away from both the classical and the religious and toward the practical and the secular.

Puritan Beginnings. In Britain schooling was the responsibility of the Church of England. Rejecting episcopacy and embracing congregationalism, the Puritans did not have a central ecclesiastical organization that could take the leadership in schooling. Given the communal ethos that dominated Puritan culture in New England, it is not surprising that government, both local and provincial, would exercise authority over education in New England that the Anglican Church did in old England. Eager to secure regular Latin instruction for prospective ministers and other young gentlemen, several Massachusetts towns, led by Boston, began in 1635 establishing schools to teach Latin grammar. However, the General Court, as the Massachusetts provincial government was called, felt that Latin schooling was hardly enough to bring forth the reformation of society the Puritans hoped to achieve. So the General Court passed the famous law of 1642 requiring parents and masters to teach their children, apprentices, and servants to read and understand the Bible and capital laws of the land. This was followed by the famous Old Deluder Satan law of 1647 calling upon towns of fifty or more families to establish a school to teach reading and writing. Towns of a hundred or more families were also required to provide a Latin grammar school. Over the next decade all eight of the large towns complied with the grammar-school requirement, but perhaps less than one-third of the towns with fifty families set up petty schools. As the population grew and became geographically extended, magistrates hired teachers and required them to hold classes in different sections of the towns over the space of a year. This moving school method made the teacher less accountable to the people of any given district and limited the time their children were likely to have access to schooling. The next stage, which clearly became the rule as the eighteenth century progressed, was the development of the district system, whereby the legislature delegated authority over schooling not to the town but to the various districts of the township. In terms of schooling, Connecticut, Plymouth, and New Hampshire followed the lead of Massachusetts. But in Rhode Island, where religious diversity was celebrated and protected even before 1650, the government did not mandate schooling for fear that one religious sect might be favored above another.

The South. In the Chesapeake, where the Anglican Church was established, the civil government dealt with education only when it came to poor children and orphans. As early as 1642 Virginia began legislating apprenticeship of poor children, much of which called upon masters to teach their apprentices to read and write. However, schools were not mandated. Few parishes built schools or paid a teacher to instruct the poor. As part of their catechetical efforts, some preachers felt compelled to teach reading and writing, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule. During the colonial era nine schools were established by endowments left by generous Virginians specifically for the education of poor children. The other southern colonies followed Virginias apprenticeship legislation for poor and orphaned youth. In 1696 Maryland set up a government-sponsored corporation to raise funds and implement policy for establishing a Latin school in every county. The trustees of the corporation founded King Williams School (later called St. Johns) in Annapolis but was able to do little else. Another Maryland law in 1723 encouraged the establishment of schools in several counties, but the religious differences of the settlers worked against the success of this legislation. Similarly, South Carolina tried several times to establish free Latin schools, but class differences and growing religious heterogeneity undermined public support for such measures not only in the Carolinas but throughout the South until after the American Revolution.

The Middle Colonies. Religious and ethnic diversity limited the involvement of the provincial governments in education in the Middle Colonies. In New York, created

by the conquest of New Netherland in 1664, schooling became the special preserve of the various religious groups; such was also the case in Pennsylvania, where English and Welsh Quakers lost their majority with the immigration of German and Scotch-Irish settlers. Towns and counties did exercise authority over orphans and poor children and apprenticeship generally, but school legislation ran into fears that public funds might help one sect over another. A Latin school was legislated for New York City in 1702 and again in 1732, but neither lasted because of the lack of consensus over religious disposition. In both New York and Pennsylvania non-English settlers were concerned with perpetuating elements of their culture, particularly their respective religious confessions and languages, through schooling. Indeed, the educational dimensions of denominationalism, particularly as it was manifested in schooling, emerged first in the Middle Colonies.

Religious Sponsorship. The proliferation of petty, or elementary, schooling on reading, writing, and arithmetic after 1700 was largely due to the efforts of various religious groups. Schooling was increasingly seen as essential to keeping children in the faith. It was also useful in terms of proselytizing. In Congregational New England, Baptists and other dissenters claimed the right to maintain their own schools, as did Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans in the Anglican South. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (the S.P.G.) was a major propagator of the Anglican faith in the Middle Colonies and did more than any provincial government to encourage schooling throughout the southern colonies. The S.P.G. generally subsidized established schoolmasters, requiring them to teach the Anglican catechism along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Educational rivalry between the Anglicans and Presbyterians became quite intense in the Middle Colonies.

Financing. In New York Anglican influence kept Presbyterian congregations from gaining corporate charters, which made it more difficult for them to raise money and undertake such activities as schooling. But in Pennsylvania the law encouraged religious groups to undertake educational efforts. The Moravians established several foreign-language schools in the Quaker colony, including Nazareth Hall and Christopher Docks famous school. The German Reformed Church, led by Michael Schlatter, and the Lutherans, led by Henry Muhlenberg, established schools conducted in German that also taught the catechisms of their respective faiths. In Virginia endowed schools like those established by Benjamin Symnes in 1634 and Thomas Eaton in 1659 were given corporate charters in 1753 and 1759, respectively. In the eighteenth century girls as well as boys sometimes attended these schools. In South Carolina a free school was established by the planter organization known as Winyaw Indigo Society. In Georgia the evangelist George Whitefield endowed the Bethesda Orphan House, which served as a free school. Endowed schools were less common in New England, but Edward Hopkins, former governor of Connecticut, provided funds for grammar schools at New Haven, Hartford, and Hadley. The Dummer Academy in Massachusetts, incorporated in 1782, began with an endowment from Lt. Gov. William Dummer in 1761. In Connecticut Joshua Moor endowed the Indian Charity School at Lebanon, taught by the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock. Endowed schools, bolstered by corporate charters, became rather commonplace by 1750 in British America.

Petty Schooling. Most colonial parents, if they were literate themselves, began literacy training of their young in the home, often in conjunction with teaching the catechism. Apprentices sometimes received additional literacy training from their masters, or sometimes the latter sent the former to two or three months of evening school in the winter. Poor children might attend a church school for free, whereas children of the faithful would pay a small fee. Wealthy parents hired tutors or perhaps

prevailed upon a Latin master to teach English as preparation for the classical languages.

Reading. Elementary education in early New England was sometimes separated into reading and writing schools. Reading was the first to be taught, usually through recitation of the alphabet as the catechism was being learned. This was the method followed in New England and also in Pennsylvania in the German-language school run by the pious Christopher Dock, one of the most remarkable teachers in colonial America. The hornbook, so called because it was a single parchment page covered by transparent horn, usually contained the alphabet, simple syllables, and the Lords Prayer. Parents used hornbooks, as did female teachers who ran so-called dame schools. Usually the dame schools were more custodial than educational, though there were exceptions. In the dame schools the girls were often given lessons in cooking and sewing as well as reading.

Writing. When students were learning how to write, the primer replaced the hornbook. Its content was decidedly religious, building upon the rudimentary doctrine conveyed through the hornbook and oral recitation of the catechism. The New England Primer (1690), the most famous of such texts, combined in a single volume the alphabet and an approved catechism. The most popular catechism, repeatedly printed in The New England Primer, was John Cottons famed Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England (1656). A typical primer began with the alphabet followed by lists of syllables. Woodcuts adorned The New England Primer, many of them illustrating the alphabet and accompanied by simple rhymed verse. For example, a woodcut of a figure picking an apple from a tree is followed by In Adams Fall, We sinned all. Next came moral lessons for children, the Lords Prayer, the Apostles creed, the Ten Commandments, the names of the Books of the Bible, and finally the Westminster Catechism and Cottons famed catechism. Children were expected to read, reread, and recite from the primer. Much of the recitation was done in unison so that the more-advanced students could encourage those less skilled. In virtually all petty schools prayer and Bible readings marked both the beginning and end of the day. The towns schools and schools sponsored by the various religious groups required that the masters bring their children to church Sunday for catechizing by the pastor.

Attendance. Few children went more than three years to such petty schools, and then seldom more than a couple of months each year. Children from wealthy families were placed in grammar school at age seven. Poor rural parents had little money to spend on education and usually needed their children to assist on the family farms. Nevertheless, the fact remains that petty, or elementary, schooling was becoming increasingly available in British North America by 1750. Indeed, its ubiquitousness surely contributed substantially to the burgeoning literacy rates that the British colonies enjoyed after that date.

Grammar Schooling. As in England, boys destined for college or leadership in the professions had to study Latin and some Greek, the languages of scholarship and learning. In the seventeenth century New England, of all the regions of British North America, was most conscientious in establishing grammar schools. The 1647 Massachusetts law calling for the establishment of grammar as well as petty schools reflected not only the Puritan desire for an educated ministry but the presence in the community of many college graduates. In the Middle Colonies and the South knowing Latin and at least some Greek was a mark of upper-class status, one that gentleman planters no less than clergymen cultivated. The wealthy and urbane Virginia planter William Byrd II seldom began the day without reading or rereading something in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. The upper-class association with Latin schooling remained paramount throughout the colonial era, and the curriculum of the grammar school changed little, though private tutors who lived with wealthy families and town masters varied their approach somewhat. Reading, memorization, oral recitation, and writing were the techniques most heavily relied upon, with an emphasis on rote memory. Girls in the upper classes occasionally learned some Latin by studying along with their brothers under the guidance of a tutor, but females were generally not taught the language.

Years of Study. Typically, young boys began grammar school at age seven or eight, and the course of study lasted seven years, usually six days a week, throughout the year. For the first three years boys memorized a Latin primer called an accidence. In their fourth year boys studied Latin grammar, often using William Lilys classic text from the sixteenth century or the more recent one done by Ezekiel Cheever, the legendary master of the Boston Latin School; students also began to read more-advanced works by Erasmus, Aesop, and Ovid. The fifth year emphasized writing Latin prose and verse as well as continued reading in Erasmus and Ovid as well as Ciceros letters. The sixth year was usually devoted to classics such as Ciceros De Officiis, Virgils Aeneid (30-19 B.C.), and Ovids Metamorphoses (A.D. 1-8), and both Greek and rhetoric were also introduced. In the final year students added other Greek authors to their reading list, including Horace, Juvenal, Homer, Isocrates, and Hesiod and also the New Testament in Greek. Considerable care was also given to translating Latin into Greek and to writing Latin dialogues, verses, and essays. Hebrew was also often introduced in the seventh year. While studying Latin grammar, most students continued learning English grammar as well. They might spend part of the early morning or late evening attending an English reading-and-writing school, or else the Latin master might teach English grammar along with the classical languages. At the end of seven years a young man was expected to be ready to pass the language requirement for college admission.

Private English School. The Latin grammar school remained the paramount form of secondary schooling throughout the colonial era. However, the expansion of trade and commerce and the Enlightenment emphasis upon science, modern history, languages, and contemporary literature gave rise to an increasing demand for more practical subjects taught in the vernacular. The middling classes, which clearly predominated in the British North American colonies, were especially attracted to education that tied the classroom to the demands of trade and commerce. As the eighteenth century progressed, the seaport towns in particular reflected the increasing variety of school available in English America. Some of these schools emphasized English grammar, often using Thomas Dilworths A New Guide to the English Tongue (1740), but they typically offered other subjects as well. Schoolmasters increasingly advertised instruction in surveying, accounting, navigation and mathematical training necessary for road and bridge building. Instruction in the practical arts and sciences was always in English, so the entrepreneurial schools became known as English schools. However, the masters of such establishments often advertised the teaching of many different subjects, including college-preparatory courses in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and rhetoric. These schools were especially intended for young men, but girls were frequently invited to attend. Women were more likely to attend schools where sewing as well as reading and writing were taught or where young gentlemen and ladies were taught music and dancing.


In the November and December 1743 issues of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Charles Fortesque advertised to teach the following:

The Latin Tongue, English in a Grammatical Manner, Navigation, Surveying, Mensuration, Dailling, Geography, Use of the Globes, the Gentlemans Astronomy, Chronology, Arithmetic, Merchants Accompts, &c. The above to be taught at Night School as well as DayHe likewise intends for the future to instruct his Latin Scholars in Writing himself. NOTE, he hath private Lodgings for single Persons.

Academies. Many of these English schools, with their emphasis upon English, modern languages, and technical subjects, paved the way for the academies that began to emerge by the 1750s which tried to combine both the Latin school and English school curricula. In such combinations the Latin curriculum usually won out. However, as historian Robert Seybolt noted many years ago, the English schools became the forerunners of the high schools that would rise to dominance in nineteenth-century America. Another scholar, Lawrence Cremin, argued persuasively that the proliferation of English schooling after 1750 played a major role in the liberating literacy that has remained a vital force in shaping American culture ever since. The English school influenced what was being taught in town schools, by private tutors, and ultimately in college. It played a major role in making the English language a paramount nationalizing force in the American colonies, and its involvement with both young men and women made it a remarkably democratic force in the distribution of knowledge through society.

Teachers. A varied lot, teachers usually came from the middling or lower classes but had the intelligence and good fortune to acquire some formal education. They were always in demand, and during the early days of settlement some of the leading figures of the community taught school lest the young be deprived of the wisdom of the ages in the American wilderness. Later on, teaching frequently became a stop on the way to another occupation or profession. In the seventeenth century provincial governments generally tried to license teachers, largely in an effort to protect established pedagogues from unqualified competition and to preserve religious orthodoxy. However, after 1700 provincial licensing requirements for teachers tended to go unenforced. Although there were women throughout the colonies who kept petty schools, most teachers were men. They had generally gone to school themselves, though their preparation and qualifications for teaching were uneven.

Salaries. Their pay likewise varied, though it was seldom enough to sustain a growing family, even for the more-skilled Latin instructors. Schoolmasters in the cities were generally paid better. Throughout British North America petty or elementary schoolmasters were almost always bivocational, often serving as town clerks, farmers, or shopkeepers as well as teachers. Even the famed Ezekiel Cheever, who presided over the Boston Latin School for more than seventy years, had difficulty making ends meet. In eighteenth-century New England, grammar schoolmasters were usually young college graduates awaiting a call to pastor a congregation or else older preachers looking to supplement their pastors salary. They typically made about forty pounds annually in addition to board, which gave them middle-class status. Elementary-school teachers made much less, seldom more than twenty pounds annually. Philip Fithian, the young College of New Jersey graduate who tutored the children of Col. Robert Carter in 1773-1774, was paid about forty pounds a year, about what a Latin schoolmaster in New England would make. Most tutors on Southern plantations made about thirty pounds annually. In New York City, Garrat Noel, Robert Leeth, and James Nathan Hutchins kept school while selling books, surveying, and writing almanacs, respectively. Although later becoming a wealthy attorney, the young Luther Martin was paid only twenty pounds colonial currency (often a third less than the English pound) for teaching a year in Maryland. However modest the pay, schoolmasters at least found their services even more in demand as the eighteenth century progressed. However poor their qualifications, the schoolmasters of British America contributed in manifold ways to the rich literary culture that characterized British North America.


James Axtell, The School upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974);

John Calam, Parsons and Pedagogues: The S.P.G. Adventure in American Education (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971);

Sheldon Cohen, A History of Colonial Education, 1607-1776 (New York: Wiley, 1974);

Lawrence Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970);

Bernardo P. Gallegos, Literacy, Education, and Society in New Mexico: 1692-1821 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992);

William H. Kilpatrick, The Dutch Schools of New Netherland and Colonial New York (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1912);

Robert Middlekauff, Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963);

Stuart G. Noble and Arthur G. Nuhrah, Education in Colonial Louisiana, Louisiana Quarterly, 32 (1949): 759-776;

Robert F. Seybolt, The Evening Schools of Colonial New York City (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1921);

Seybolt, The Public Schools of Colonial Boston (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935).